Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker is a full-throttle body shock of a movie. It gets inside you like a virus, puts your nerves in a blender and twists your guts into a Gordian knot.
Set during the last month in the yearlong rotation of a three-man U.S. Army bomb squad stationed in Baghdad, it may be the only film made about Iraq — documentary or fiction — that gives a true sense of what it feels like to be on the front lines of a war fought not in jungles but in cities, where bombs rise up from the ground instead of raining down from the sky, where every narrow alley portends an ambush and every onlooker is a potential insurgent. It's an experiential war movie but also a psychologically astute one, matching its intricate sensory architecture with an equally detailed map of the modern soldier's psyche, a diagram of what motivates volunteers in a volunteer army.
The movie begins with a typically bracing scene. The soldiers of Bravo Company's Explosive Ordnance Disposal team come upon an IED planted in the center of a busy Baghdad marketplace. When their remote-controlled, bomb-detonating robot hits a snag, the team's affable leader (Guy Pearce) dons a thick Kevlar suit and attempts to set the charge manually. He doesn't return. His replacement, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), is a career soldier of an entirely different breed, one who prefers to handle bombs up close and personally and whose Kevlar suit is part of his daily wardrobe — not just for special occasions.
At first glance, Sgt. James seems like the closest thing to a stock character, the gonzo alpha male living out his childhood fantasies, in a picture markedly devoid of small-town rubes, poetry-quoting intellectuals or any other easily reducible war-movie "types." But like most things in The Hurt Locker, there is considerably more to him than meets the eye. Beneath his blustery macho surface, he may be the movie's most intricately wired explosive device.
Written by former Village Voice columnist Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker belongs to that subset of Bigelow's work devoted to the ethos of hyper-masculine communities, the men who choose to live in them and those who emerge as their leaders. Sgt. James is one such character, and Bigelow, Boal (who spent time embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad) and Renner excel at showing us how Sgt. James' reckless displays of bravado are a coping mechanism and an addiction, a battlefield genius and a form of madness. He inspires envy in some, contempt in others, and both in the men under his command (two comparatively by-the-book sergeants very well-played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) who want to prove their mettle as men of war, as long as they go home in one piece. But for James, who has an ex-wife and child waiting for him somewhere, the adrenaline rush and alternative reality of Iraq are vastly preferable to the home front with its prison of domestic responsibility.
Bigelow's strength is revealing character through action. Here, combat is more often a solitary, rather than a group, endeavor: A lone man traces a rat's nest of wires back to its source or exchanges long-distance fire with a single sniper across a vast desert expanse.
There is little, if any, talk about patriotism or homeland security, and there are fewer American flags on display than in any American war movie in memory. When The Hurt Locker premiered last fall at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, this prompted some observers to tag it an "apolitical" war picture. Instead of setting out to prove a point, it seeks to immerse us in an environment. Time is Bigelow's organizing principle here — the time left in Iraq for the men of Bravo company (displayed on the screen as chapter headings throughout), the time that ticks away between the discovery of a bomb and its eventual disarming or detonation, and the time that seems to stretch out indefinitely toward the horizon during those unbearably tense moments.
War may be hell, but in The Hurt Locker, it's also an incredibly pellucid waking dream.